The awkwardness of kindness
Kindness is often associated with weakness or the humble brag.
With one, you're seen to be uncompetitive or don't know better, and with the other, you're seen to be self-righteous, fishing for recognition or just selfishly wanting to feel good about yourself.
This awkwardness surrounding kindness has long fascinated me.
Like many other volunteers, I don't talk about kindness much.
It is the daily bread for employees in the social service sector but they talk about it even less.
I understand that many dedicated social service employees prefer to keep their heads down and focus on the work. If they do share, it is peppered with semi-apologetic sentences like "I don't usually talk about it", "it's not a big deal", and "I'm just doing what I can".
How would you feel if I were to tell you that I have been volunteering and working in the social service sector for the last 20 years, working with a women's shelter, youth homes and mental health associations, at home and abroad?
Or if I were to tell you that I believe in kindness, purposefully integrating social responsibility into my daily life and in the innate goodness of people waiting to be uncovered?
Am I too good to be true, full of it or do you agree with my beliefs?
Any outright declaration about kindness, factual or not, either stops conversations or is automatically called into question.
There is no culture to support talking about kindness.
The deeply ingrained idea of – sometimes false - humility in Asian society can be so restrictive that it leaves no space for people to own their kindness without disclaimers.
My own experience is that it can trigger a spectrum of emotions, from curiosity and encouragement to suspicion and anger.
In fact, as I write this, I experience an unusual amount of self-censorship, born out of past misunderstandings of appearing self-congratulatory, and not wanting to suffer any backlash.
It is ironic that showing kindness or doing good is shrouded in secrecy while there is almost unlimited freedom to rant about anything these days, especially online.
When a lady mentioned in a Facebook group the kindness that she had shown others, the normally rambunctious commentators immediately stopped.
It grew so quiet, I could almost hear the crickets chirping. Then I watched in fascination as she was completely ignored and the usual rants resumed.
Closer to home, I remember one of my first interviews after graduation.
I was asked what had the greatest impact on my life. I mentioned the first thing that came into my head: spending two years at Home for Little Wanderers, a home that strengthens vulnerable families and keeps children safe in their own communities in the US.
Before I could continue, the interviewer furiously interjected with "we are not a charity, you know". I was offered the job but turned it down.
Walking on eggshells around doing good is frustrating for so many reasons.
I want to be able to share my excitement and my revelations openly, without fear of backlash. I want to hear the stories of others without disclaimers.
All is not lost, however.
Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of vulnerability for others to feel comfortable sharing. An acquaintance who heard about me cleaning flats for the elderly went on to tell me about her many years of advocacy work for autism.
There are also stories that invigorate me. When there was a train breakdown in Singapore this year, stranded commuters posted on social media about fellow commuters giving up seats and helping each other with bus routes, and drivers stopping at packed bus stops to offer people lifts.
In that case and in others I've seen, a trickle of sharing about good can sometimes create a ripple effect, helping a cause spread its message, encouraging others to volunteer, developing personal character and generating positive energy that we can all use more of.